How Northwest Public Radio turned listeners into collaborators on content

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Public radio stations never have enough of three resources: people, time and money. The membership model focuses on making sure we have the cash to stay on the air. But Melody Kramer presents an alternative membership model that looks to listeners as a source of time and talent. It’s similar to the volunteerism common to many other nonprofit endeavors.

While the audience-volunteer model is promising, there are some practical barriers to implementation.

1. We need the time and people to instruct, guide, supervise or teach volunteers. This isn’t always available: I can name many people at the station who each do the jobs of many more people. And while our listeners have a lot of skills to offer, efforts still need to be coordinated.

Northwest Public Radio listener Clare DeLong Tuminez and her mother Mary DeLong rub the nose of a statue of George Washington for good luck during their walk through Olympia, Wash. (Photo: Clare DeLong Tuminez)

Northwest Public Radio listener Clare DeLong Tuminez and her mother Mary DeLong rub the nose of a statue of George Washington for good luck during their walk through Olympia, Wash. (Photo: Clare DeLong Tuminez)

2. We can’t afford to let listeners donate their time instead of their money. Because we can’t go below a certain funding threshold without losing our ability to broadcast, volunteered time can’t come at the expense of donations.

3. Because of #2, listeners need an incentive to donate both their time and their money. Volunteering time needs to offer something to them that a monetary donation doesn’t. Kramer identified this challenge: “Stations are missing opportunities to engage people who have little interest in traditional volunteer activities.”

As a reporter and producer at Northwest Public Radio, I was very interested in Kramer’s model. I feel she has a great sense of what public media can do to further its mission, and in ways that innovate while still being achievable. But, for a long time, there was no good way to implement those ideas at Northwest Public Radio.

The opportunity came almost by accident. Like most media, publishers regularly send us preview copies of books. At a weekly meeting of our social media team (people with other jobs dedicating part of their time), I glanced at a copy of Walking Washington’s History. The book presents 10 historic walks through Washington cities. So I asked: Why not have listeners take the walks and write about them?

We put out the call on-air and on our social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter. We offered a free copy of the book, and response was immediate, overwhelming and surprising, with hundreds of inquiries in just a couple days. Then we selected 10 respondents that had each volunteered to take a different walk. Volunteers were asked to send us a firsthand account of their walk, along with photos.

Of those, we received eight completed pieces — not as many as we’d hoped, but those who did finish the project sent in a lot of strong material. The first entry is on our website, and the others will be posted once weekly. Pieces received minimal editing. They were presented as personal accounts, not objective journalism. Getting the first story posted was delayed when I had to take on Morning Edition production duties and reduce my time on social media and reporting. See the first challenge listed above.

In all, it was a success. Here’s why it worked:

1. It needed minimal time to get started: some on-air promos, some Facebook and Twitter posts, and a bit of time to go through emails and select volunteers.

2. It took minimal training. We avoided over-specific instructions in order to give volunteers the flexibility to be creative.

3. We could not have produced this content with donations. We do not have the money to hire writers or send our own staff to produce similar pieces. (We partner with the Northwest News Network for regional news coverage). It was a unique opportunity for listeners to contribute. Additionally, digital content can be difficult for us to produce: Most of our time and money goes to our broadcasts. Member stations can struggle to stay relevant in the digital realm, and we’ve spent the last few years stepping up our digital media efforts.

4. It put listeners in the spotlight. Instead of volunteering to work behind the scenes, listeners were offered a chance to have their work featured. Public radio listeners love public radio and want to be a part of it. Above all, they want to be a visible part of it. We didn’t interview listeners about their experiences or make them part of a call-in show. We let them create their own content, then featured and promoted it.

5. We put faith in our audience. There is an element of risk in letting listeners write their own stories. It can be easy to keep your audience at arm’s length, to broadcast without listening. Changing the broadcaster/listener relationship can be very difficult. We found a way to form a uniquely personal and direct connection with our audience.

6. It cost us nothing but postage. We asked for and received ten free copies of Walking Washington’s History from the University of Washington Press. Listeners sent their responses by email. We spent none of our limited budget on this, and the volunteers did not spend any money that might discourage them from supporting us financially in the future.

7. It connected listeners to each other, not just to the station. Part of our mission is to enrich the Northwest as a community. This project gave the volunteers a chance to speak directly to the rest of our audience.

Any other station can do something similar. Many can probably do even more. What was unique about this project was the faith we put into our listeners to do what we do: write, take photos and create something unique. They provided us with content we could not get otherwise, and we provided them with a platform they would not otherwise have access to. Stations rely on listeners. We encourage them to collaborate.

Max C. Bartlett is a reporter and producer with Northwest Public Radio.